Unexpected ConsequencesPosted May 15th, 2012
by Victor M. Parachin
Four employees of the town of Hooksett, New Hampshire have been fired for an unusual reason: gossip.
The four municipal workers, who had 46 combined years of service with the town, were discussing rumors of what they considered to be an improper relationship between the town administrator and another employee.
The gossip scandal became public when the town administrator approached the city council asking for assistance. The administrator said that the rumor mill was causing him to suffer physical symptoms due to the stress involved. An investigation was undertaken, and the result was the firing of the four employees.
“Gossip, whispering and an unfriendly environment are causing poor morale and interfering with the efficient performance of town business,” investigators wrote in their report.
Though the incident is an unusual response to gossip, it does demonstrate the damage gossip can cause. The town administrator was hurt by the spreading rumors and the four employees were damaged professionally by their indulgence in the rumor mill.
Gossip is common in families, the workplace, schools, churches, and clubs. Despite the fact that it occurs nearly everywhere, it should be viewed as a dangerous, high-risk activity. It has the potential to be harmful even when the gossip may be true.
“Gossip needn’t be false to be evil,” Frank A. Clark has observed. “There’s a lot of truth that shouldn’t be passed around.” That may be why the Bible issues this prohibition against gossip: “Do not go about spreading slander among your people” (Leviticus 19:16, NIV).
With that in mind, consider the following strategies for dealing with the gossip habit.
The Triple Filter
The “triple-filter test” has sometimes been attributed to the Greek philosopher Socrates. Though the attribution is questionable, the principles are not.
As the story goes, Socrates was stopped on the street by a man who initiated a conversation by asking, “Do you know what I just heard about your friend?”
“At the risk of appearing rude,” Socrates is said to have replied, “may I ask you to pass a small test. I call it the triple filter test.”
Curious, the man listened as Socrates explained the triple filter: “The first filter is truth. Have you made absolutely sure that what you are about to tell me is true?”
When the man said “No, I just heard about it,” Socrates replied, “All right. So you don’t really know if it’s true or not. Let’s try the second filter, which is goodness. Is what you are about to tell me about my friend something good?”
The man replied, “No, quite the opposite.”
Socrates continued, “So, you want to tell me something bad about him but you’re not certain it’s true. Now, the final filter is usefulness. Is what you want to tell me about my friend going to be useful to me?”
Once again, the man, probably embarrassed, said, “no, not really.”
So, Socrates concluded, “Well, if what you want to tell me is neither true nor good nor even useful, why tell it to me at all?”
Whether or not the little story actually has anything to do with Socrates, it is certainly wisdom worthy of our attention.
Clarity About Consequences
We can never hear this warning enough: Gossip may seem harmless, yet the consequences can be disastrous.
The apostle Paul may have had this in mind when he advised, “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up” (Ephesians 4:29). Consider these potential consequences the next time you are tempted to talk about someone:
• Relationships are harmed, sometimes irreversibly. Think about yourself. How would you feel about a good friend when you learn he has shared confidential information about you.
• Trust is eroded, even destroyed. A woman, concerned about a work colleague, spoke about her concern with a mutual friend. Late in the day, that friend contacted the work colleague offering to help with the issue. That colleague was furious with the woman in spite of the fact her intentions were honorable.
• Your credibility can be impacted. Do you want to be known as a gossip? If others perceive you as untrustworthy and unable to keep a confidence, they will stay away or keep all conversation on a superficial level. Your relationships will lack depth and authenticity.
• You may suffer emotionally. Ask yourself how you feel after you’ve engaged in gossip. It can leave you feeling guilty, anxious, and regretful. Such negative emotions, in turn, often yield harmful levels of stress.
It Cannot Be Undone
According to the Old Testament prophet Amos, “The prudent man keeps quiet” (Amos 5:13). Before you talk about someone, remind yourself that, once it is unleashed, gossip can rarely be reined in. No matter how much you may regret what you have said, gossip lasts and lasts. That’s the lesson of this Hasidic story of a man who spoke to people in his small village about the local rabbi.
One day, the man’s conscience disturbed him over the comments he had made, so he approached the rabbi asking to be forgiven. The rabbi said he would forgive him if he fulfilled one condition: that he go home, cut up a feather pillow, and scatter the feathers into the wind.
The man did so and returned to the rabbi asking, “Will you forgive me now?”
The rabbi said, “There is one more thing. I want you to go and gather up all the feathers.”
The man objected, saying, “That’s impossible!”
“Precisely,” said the rabbi, “and although you sincerely regret the damage you have done to me, it is as impossible to undo it as it is to recover all the feathers.”
Just Say No
King Solomon wrote, “Without wood a fire goes out; without gossip a quarrel dies down” (Proverbs 26:20). When hearing gossip, you have several positive options: Don’t say anything. Walk away. Give visual cues that you are uncomfortable or uninterested. And above all, choose not to pass along what you do hear.
A nurse on duty at her hospital was shocked by a gossip incident. “On my way to lunch, I got into an elevator filled with nurses, residents, and physicians,” she explained. “As we were descending, a veteran nurse proceeded to tell her companions—and all of us within earshot—about a former employee who was a patient at the hospital. She identified the patient by name, the diagnosis, and the department where she used to work. I glanced at one of the physicians, who rolled his eyes in disbelief.”
Stepping out of the elevator, the physician spoke quietly to the nurse: “How could such an excellent nurse blurt out confidential patient information in a public elevator?” The doctor is a model of not participating in gossip.
Rise Above the Temptation
You do not have to succumb to gossip. It’s just this simple: If you see or hear something, simply refuse to pass it on.
A woman recently wrote to an advice columnist. She explained that she was a 45-year-old single woman whose best friend was a man.
“Gavin and I have known each other since I was 3,” she wrote. “We were raised together and consider ourselves like brother and sister. We have always had a strictly platonic friendship. Gavin is married to a wonderful woman who is also a friend of mine.”
She went on to explain that Gavin and his wife rode motorcycles together but a recent physical disability made it impossible for his wife to ride. Gavin’s employer held a charity motorcycle ride, and Gavin’s wife asked the woman to ride with her husband.
“I did, and had a wonderful time,” she wrote. “Since then, I have learned that several people have been spreading rumors that Gavin and I are having an affair because I was seen on the motorcycle with him. His wife says not to worry about it but my feelings are hurt and I feel my reputation is being tarnished.”
The people who gossiped did not have all the facts. Pain and hurt could have been avoided if they had risen above the temptation of jumping to conclusions and gossiping.
Of course, knowing the strong temptation to spread gossip, the two friends might have done well to consider the potential consequences of their public motorcycle ride. Harmless or not, with such a public appearance, resulting gossip should hardly have been a surprise. We will never be able to put an end to all gossip, but we can avoid some situations that will leave us wide open to the harm gossipers can cause.
Perhaps this statement from American humorist Will Rogers succinctly summarizes how to deal with gossip: “Live in such a way that you would not be ashamed to sell your parrot to the town gossip.”